The last time one of the two major parties nominated a real businessman for president was more than 70 years ago. It was 1940, the world was on the verge of another war and the Great Depression still lingered. The GOP turned to Wall Street for a candidate who lost in an Electoral College landslide. No business candidate, who hasn’t been elected to something, has won a major party nomination since.
If Donald Trump is really serious about winning the GOP nomination next year, he’ll need to overcome a lot of history. Business people don’t get nominated for president.
Politico reports today that Trump is serious. He’s been interviewing campaign staff and media consultants. (He needs a media consultant? This guy is living proof that the most dangerous place in America is the area between Donald Trump and a television camera.)
Even as Karl Rove, the last GOP operative to actually win a tough national election, disses Trump, the polls show that his wacky attention on the so called “birther” issue has gotten him attention if not serious credibility.
Trump also has to overcome, well, the sense that he’s just playing all this for the PR involved. And there are the jokes. On the NPR quiz show Wait, Wait…Don’t Tell Me that aired last weekend, one of the panelists made a crack about Trump’s famous hair style suggesting it was some kind of animal. David Letterman said, “The White House is saying Donald Trump has ‘zero percent chance’ of being elected. Isn’t that a little high?”
In politics, the old saying goes, it’s OK if they’re laughing with you, not so good if they’re laughing at you.
But back to Trump’s one potential strength as a serious candidate – his business credentials. If he really starts to gain traction we’ll hear a good deal more about whether he has really been a success, but let’s grant that he can make a plausible case for his leadership and business acumen. Does it help him? I’d argue no.
In 1940, Republicans were desperate to find a credible candidate to stop Franklin Roosevelt’s quest for an unprecedented third term in the White House. The leading GOP candidates in 1940 were two venerable U.S. Senators, Arthur Vandenberg and Robert Taft, and the 37-year old New York District Attorney, Thomas E. Dewey. None of these capable men really excited the party, which surprisingly turned instead to a Wall Street energy executive named Wendell Willkie.
Willkie was a first-time candidate having never run for anything. In his delightful book about Willkie’s dark horse nomination and campaign – Five Days in Philadelphia - Charles Peters quotes one of Willkie’s friends as saying: “He was a big, shambling, rumpled, overweight, carelessly dressed man, and he radiated a stunning combination of intellect and homely warmth.” In other words, not Donald Trump.
What Willkie lacked in political experience he made up for in personality and a personal style that was genuine. Up from humble beginnings in Indiana, Willkie became a lawyer and by 1940 had risen through the ranks to become the top guy at Commonwealth and Southern, one of the nation’s major utility holding companies. Democrats derisively dismissed Willkie’s personal story by characterizing him as “the barefoot boy from Wall Street.”
Willkie ran a more than credible campaign against Roosevelt, but with war underway in Europe the country was not ready to turn the White House over to an inexperienced utility executive, even a charming one. Willkie’s respected running mate was the great Oregon Sen. Charles McNary, but even McNary couldn’t help the ticket carry Oregon.
Considering the times, and even granting Willkie’s attractiveness, it’s hard to believe that in 1940 – or 2012 – that voters would elect a energy company CEO to run the country. Perhaps about as likely as electing a real estate developer turned reality television show host.
Trump’s best option would seem to be a third-party bid, ala Ross Perot. Perot parlayed his quirky straight talk into nearly 19% of the popular vote in 1992. Arguably, he made Bill Clinton president. Trump could also be a spoiler, but not a contender.
Generally speaking successful business people over estimate the value voters place on business success and they undervalue the soft skills – personality, humor, a genuine liking for people – that are essential to a successful candidate. Politics isn’t business and the skills for success in one field don’t always translate to the other.
Donald Trump can command a lot of attention, as he is currently doing, but he can’t, I suspect, stand the intense scrutiny he will get if he really becomes a candidate. The hair and wife jokes will continue and when next year rolls around, Republicans will do as they have since 1944. They’ll nominate a candidate with public sector skills and experience.
Wendell Willkie was the last serious “business candidate” to run for president. Donald Trump isn’t Wendell Willkie.
The real danger for Republicans may be that the Trump sideshow, currently fascinating the media, drains oxygen from the real GOP candidates who are trying to get organized. On the other hand, the candidates who could win the nomination may benefit from the contrast to Trump. None of them is a much divorced, windy, publicity addicted, weird haired, Manhattan real estate developer given to wearing pink neckties. No one has ever had that profile and been elected either.